Youth, School and Family
Lutheran School Accreditation
Accreditation helps schools provide quality education coupled with the love of Christ.
When it comes to sharing the Gospel, few organizations open more doors than our Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) schools. There, the good news of Christ is shared with thousands of children and families. During the 2015–16 academic year alone, 2,336 students in LCMS schools were baptized into God’s family.
“What’s interesting today is that so many people are not coming [to our schools] for religious reasons,” explained Terry Schmidt, director of LCMS School Ministry. “They have other motivations on their dashboard: a school with sound academics that is safe, affordable, convenient. Many of our schools enroll more non-Lutherans than Lutherans, which is great because the real reason we exist is to proclaim Jesus to children and families. They’re going to get Jesus in our schools.”
To help bolster the schools’ success, LCMS School Ministry provides support all year long through mailings, social media, consulting, conferences, service contracts, leadership coaching, National Lutheran Schools Week materials, Chapel Talks resources and numerous other services.
Perhaps one of the most unique and important services they provide, however, is school accreditation.
Meeting the Mission in Cedarburg
“National Lutheran School Accreditation (NLSA) is a tool, created and operated by the LCMS, to accredit Lutheran schools,” Schmidt shared. “Right now, we have 690 accredited schools. These and other schools that are involved with an accreditation process demonstrate a commitment to quality and improvement, and they’re completely engaged in making the school the best it can be in serving its students.”
Among the 690 is First Immanuel Lutheran School (FILS) in Cedarburg, Wis., with Principal Dawn Walker, who helped guide the school through its accreditation in 2015.
“Completing the accreditation process is like taking an assessment,” Walker said. “A good assessment shows you where you are in relation to a set of standards. We wanted to see where we were in relation to the NLSA standards so we knew what we needed to improve as a school to be the best we can be as we strive to offer a quality Christian education to our students.”
Throughout the accreditation process, First Immanuel found much to celebrate and maintain, yet there also were a few areas of improvement that came to light.
“First of all, we learned what we were doing well,” Walker recalled. “It’s hard to know this until someone from the outside comes in to evaluate you. It was rewarding to learn that many of the things we had implemented over the last several years were well received and had become an effective part of our ministry at FILS. We also learned what we can improve; the accreditation process led to us creating a new dismissal procedure, since we scored low in this area. As we came up with this new process, I witnessed our entire FILS staff working together to share ideas, develop a process and fine-tune the steps to come up with a dismissal procedure that is working fabulously.”
According to Schmidt, parents, congregational stakeholders and others need to be assured that their school “strives to serve students well and with intent, with a commitment to quality Christian education.” In addition to the satisfaction it brings to the school and its families, accreditation, while voluntary, is often worth the effort and expense, since some states offer a monetary award, reimbursements and tax credits for being accredited.
First Immanuel member Laurie McGraw and her husband enrolled their two boys — Grant, now in eighth grade, and Reid, now in sixth grade — in the school after visiting nine different schools in their community.
“Our boys … have been at FILS since kindergarten for Grant and 3K preschool for Reid,” McGraw explained. “It was hard to narrow it down, but then it just became clear. [On] our first visit to FILS, we were immediately greeted by Pastor Jon [van Sliedrecht], and he talked with us. The kindergarten teachers and principal at the time were very friendly, and we were looking for a school for both kids to be at through eighth grade.”
Since then, the McGraw family has appreciated the improvements that have resulted from the accreditation in 2015.
“We’ve heard about the accreditation process the past few years, and I believe it’s brought good changes to the school with a higher level of academics, security and safety for the kids,” McGraw said. “I love that the kids love to go to school! They don’t want to miss a day and enjoy doing their projects, sports and being with friends.”
Of course, the most compelling reason for seeking accreditation through NLSA is to determine where a school excels and where it is weak in its religious education and spiritual life. According to Walker, “the benefit of NLSA specifically is that not only are we evaluated on standards to which all schools are held, we are evaluated on how we are meeting the mission of the LCMS and our relationship with the LCMS church that supports and guides our school.”
From Schmidt’s perspective, “NLSA is the perfect tool for Lutheran schools because not only does it evaluate the school as a whole, but it delves into the spiritual aspect of the school, evaluating and recognizing strengths and addressing concerns. It’s designed specifically for our schools and the religious component of our schools.”
And that religious component is a huge draw for families in the community, and one key aspect of Lutheran schooling that encourages families to come, stay and see their children’s Lutheran education through.
“The kindness and encouragement at school continue with the kids at home, [on] their sport teams or [with] community people they’re in contact with,” McGraw said.
For many families, the accreditation status of a school is just the icing on the cake, another attractive feature that sets the local Lutheran school apart from others in the area, opening doors to Gospel-sharing that might not otherwise take place.
“The benefit of NLSA specifically is that not only are we evaluated on standards to which all schools are held, we are evaluated on how we are meeting the mission of the LCMS and our relationship with the LCMS church that supports and guides our school.” Principal Dawn Walker
A Team Effort
According to an NLSA document explaining its approach, “accreditation involves a school in a rigorous self-study process in seven distinct areas that are related to school quality: purpose, relationships, governance, professional personnel, teaching and learning, student services, and facilities.”
The self-study helps a school evaluate its actual conditions that are strong indicators of school quality, using an objective, evidence-based approach. Then, an NLSA team visits to assess and confirm what the school found throughout the course of the self-study.
“It [was] a team effort because, in order to be successful and paint the best picture of your school, everyone needs to be involved,” Walker explained. “This included administration, pastors, teachers, students, parents, stakeholders and the NLSA visit team. A lot of work needs to be done by all of these people!”
Walking Alongside Schools
“LCMS School Ministry supported FILS by providing a specific process to follow,” Walker said. “The accreditation information is well presented, and the instructions are very specific and thorough! They provide suggestions for what can be used as evidence. Through the network LCMS School Ministry has created, we are provided guidance by our district executive and the district NLSA representative — this is extremely helpful to a principal who has never led a school through the process before.”
Since school accreditation is a rigorous and often intense process for schools, LCMS School Ministry has made it a goal to walk alongside schools throughout accreditation, helping to ensure success for the benefit of everyone involved.
“We don’t just provide the platform, but truly the opportunity for schools to study who they are and to plan intentionally for improvement,” Schmidt said. “The accreditation process is a roadmap for getting that done, and NLSA is the only [accreditation agency] that assigns a consultant to assist the process at the school, so they can work with experienced, well-trained people who will walk alongside them and ensure success. We never go in with the intent of the school not making it; we want them to conclude [the accreditation] successfully.”
With LCMS School Ministry partnering with schools, not only through the accreditation process but as a partner in the Gospel, more and more families will continue to be served with a quality education coupled with the love of Christ.
“We have loved the years at FILS for our kids and family,” McGraw said. “It’s hard to believe they will be going onto high school, college and beyond before we know it! I believe … they are given a great faith foundation here and will be able to build on it as they go into their futures.”
Pray with Us
You delight when Your children call You Father, O Lord. Bless Lutheran schools as they teach the children in their care. Be with those who teach, that they may equip the children to serve You and their neighbor in this creation. Work also through Your Word as it is shared in the classroom and in chapel services, that all who attend Lutheran schools may trust in the saving Gospel of Your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
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